The Whole World is Smiling with Blake Wheeler

Kevin McCartney
February 26 2013 11:05AM

 

 

Prior to the Buffalo last week, various Jets were quoted about the need for positivity. Wheeler in particular started talking about changing his attitude. Sure enough, after earning a win against Buffalo, Blake Wheeler's new sunny disposition took centre stage in the press. Both the Winnipeg Free Press and Sun ran articles that would have us believe Wheeler's smiling face backed off defenders and opened passing lanes like his scowl never could. Louis Armstrong to the rescue, right? Call me skeptical.

Yet something did change for Wheeler in Buffalo, and it carried through into Carolina. With the help of Ninja Greg's cool new data from the Super Shot tool, we can take an educated guess at the cause of Wheeler's recent turn. 

It will come as no surprise to Jets fans that Blake Wheeler is kinda good at hockey. We watched him drive offence last season with his great hockey sense and soft mits, leading the team in points and doing this (bar down dot com, as Justin Bourne would say). He can be a tough player to quantify, though, and despite his breakout since leaving Boston, his shooting percentage has remained remarkably average and his territorial numbers are strong, but not Kyle Wellwood strong (seriously, Kyle Wellwood is like a corsi guru come to teach us the importance of listening to advanced stats).  

SHOT DISTANCE

One of the things that Blake Wheeler excels at is getting the puck closer to the net. It's not a perfect measure of a player by any means and doesn't always equate to better scoring chances, but when a guy does it better than the rest of his team year in and year out, it's worth noting. And, you might have guessed, Blake Wheeler is one of those guys. Below are the average distance of shots by Wheeler himself, by any teammate while he's on the ice, and then by any teammate when he's off the ice. You might be tempted to think he just floated a couple more feet before letting it go each time, but the average includes all shots from point shots to crease scrums and the samples are large, so we can intuit more chances from close to the net and fewer from further out. 

Seasons

Wheeler’s Own Shot Distance

Shot Distance with Wheeler on Ice

Shot Distance with Wheeler off ice

2012/13

33.8 ft

36.3 ft

35.6 ft

            BUF, Feb 19

25.5 ft

28.4 ft

34.9 ft

            CAR, Feb 21

36.3 ft

32.3 ft

40.4 ft

2011/12

27.2 ft

34.7 ft

37.3 ft

2010/11

 

 

 

             Boston

29.1 ft

36.3 ft

38.8 ft

             Atlanta

30 ft

34.7 ft

36.8 ft

2009/10 (BOS)

28.1 ft

36.6 ft

39.2 ft

2008/09 (BOS)

30.9 ft

36.7 ft

38.6 ft

 * All shots are even strength in regulation, home and away. Distances are always approximated based on real-time events, but with large samples we can assume that the distances are comparable to each other. Data for Feb 23rd game not yet available.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

First, in every year of his professional career, the average shot distance for his team has been lower when he's on the ice than when he's off it, and by a fair margin. I was tempted to imagine it as the mark of any skilled forward - the team average is just dragged down by the grinders and defencemen. Yet even as a rookie he had a lower on-ice average distance than Boston's leading scorer (Marc Savard - I miss that guy), and lower in fact than any regular forward save Kessel and Ryder. Fast forward to last year and the only forward on the Jets to beat Wheeler's 34.7ft on-ice average distance was Tim Stapleton in 1/3 the sample (245 vs Wheeler's 741 on-ice shots). I would argue that this is actually a skill that Wheeler possesses.

Second, notice the difference this year. When he moves from Boston to Atlanta, his on-ice shot distance drops more than a full foot and stays that low for his breakout season with the Jets. I'm not sure the reason, but linemates, opportunity, and system all likely play a role. This season? He jumps back up to his previous totals amidst team struggles and personal inconsistency. For the first time in his career, his on-ice average shooting distance is further away than his off-ice distance.

Third, notice his game in Buffalo. It's just one game, but it was a remarkable performance and Wheeler totalled six even strength shots off his own stick. The Jets got an average of 6 ft closer to the net on shots when he was on versus when he was off the ice. In Carolina, the Jets got shots from EIGHT FEET! closer to the goal on average when he was on the ice compared to when he was off it. Smile be damned. The guy found patience. And maybe most of all, he returned to a skill he has shown his whole career, but which has been hard to notice or quantify.

NO, REALLY, WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

I enjoy a feel good story as much as the next guy, and if Wheeler just needed to have fun in order to find patience and create plays closer to the goal then I hope the Jets hire Wheeler a personal clown (or make Peluso practice in floppy red shoes at least). But I suspect as the season wears on, the real story of his turn will be this simple metric. Blake Wheeler has excelled his entire career at creating offence closer to the goal, and if he continues to find ways to do that, we'll all have a little more fun on game night.

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Kevin is the Managing Editor of Jets Nation. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, The Sporting News, and around the Nations Network. An enthusiastic over-analyst, his background and interests are diverse, but you might notice he's obsessed with hockey. Track him down on twitter @kevinmccart or @nhljetsnation
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